Creation and release music has never been easier, but promoting your work has never been more confusing. Should you be focusing on TikTok or touring? And when you don’t have many followers, is online promotion even worth your time?
To crack the code, we spoke to indie musicians, marketers, tastemakers and even a professor. While there’s no guaranteed formula for success, we’ve found plenty of tips and tricks for all types of musicians. Let’s dive in.
Tune into playlists
Streaming is by far the most popular way people consume music today, and getting on the right playlists can make your music career. While anyone can create a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music, only a small percentage have a large following. If you don’t have your own popular playlists, how can you get on the big ones?
Services like SubmitHub and Playlist Push let you submit to playlist creators, music blogs, and social media influencers. SubmitHub has free and paid submission options, but Playlist Push is paid only. Playlists like IndieMono and Alexrainbirdmusic have free submissions in a variety of genres. While Spotify doesn’t allow playlist owners to charge for inclusion, it appears to allow (or at least tolerate) submission fees.
Do these strategies work? Yes, but artists should prepare “to go through a lot of rejection,” says Jonathan Teeter, frontman for the Charlottesville, Va.-based indie band Films on Song. One addition from the BIRP.FM playlist led to over 10,000 streams for his band’s single “Ritual Day”. “Having to pay $1-$3 to submit through SubmitHub isn’t ideal, but finding out which blogs and influencers like what can help.
Rejection is part of the game and it’s important to keep your chin up. “Music is art. Art is hard,” says KCRV radio DJ Jason Kramer, who was one of the early tastemakers to discover Billie Eilish and Finneas. “Artists should just be themselves.” Play something they need to play,” he continues, “Take risks, don’t be afraid.”
Create your own playlists
You don’t have to rely on someone else’s playlist to listen to. On both Spotify and Apple Music, if a playlist is public, anyone can find and follow it. The exact algorithms aren’t public, but playlists with names based on iconic lyrics, new albums, places or feelings (“New York Autumn Vibes,” for example) seem to occasionally perform well on Spotify even for users who don’t follow them. Seemingly without trying, some users have created playlists that attract thousands of listeners. Artists can upload their favorite playlists to their artist profile, gaining new followers and showcasing their favorite songs. Apple Music doesn’t display the number of followers on a playlist, making it difficult to gauge which strategies are working there.
What playlists are you on? The Apple Music for Artists and Spotify for Artists apps will give you play counts, information about playlists you’ve been added to, and other useful information.
Use resources from streaming services
Apple Music for Artists has a page with tips and tools for promoting your work. You can even create your own QR code that links to your song or album. Spotify has a similar resource called Code Builder, and they even explain how you can submit songs for inclusion in a playlist. SoundCloud also has a page with tips to help creators monetize and promote their music. QR codes that link to streaming or social networks are great for placing on stickers, posters or other promotional materials.
Collaborate on tracks and covers
Features and collaborative songs may be most common in hip hop, but they can be a great way to expand your audience regardless of the genre. For example, indie rock band Surfer Blood released an EP titled Hard boiled, on which other artists covered their songs. The songs appeared on Surfer Blood’s page alongside the cover artists’ pages, maximizing exposure for everyone.
Covering a well-known song can be another good way to gain new listeners. This article is not legal advice, but remember, if you cover a song, you will have to pay royalties to whoever wrote the song. Luckily, services like DistroKid can handle that for you.
Nurture your image
Social media has become so essential to promoting music that even artists who died decades ago have an active presence on Instagram. While it’s a powerful tool for artists, music influencer Ari Elkins warns artists not to neglect their music. “Gaining thousands of followers on TikTok is exciting, but it’s crucial that those followers are there for your music, not just unrelated viral videos that have nothing to do with you as an artist.”
While social media can lead to success, the game is always changing. Cehril, an indie pop artist based in Hong Kong, started by uploading her own songs to SoundCloud and now has a record deal and over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But she cautioned that what worked before may not work now. “If I were starting from scratch today, I wouldn’t start on SoundCloud. I would just distribute it on all the streaming platforms and promote it mainly on Instagram.”
When on TikTok or Instagram, what strategies should you use? “It’s more than likes,” says Cass Robinson, a social media strategist in Sydney, Australia, who notes that social media algorithms look at various factors such as “time spent on your content, engagement rate and number of shares and saves.” ” If you’re not sure what to do, Kass recommends just getting started. “Give yourself a head start and work to improve your content over time.”